The bright and the dark Universe - from bright stars to Dark Energy

Lead Research Organisation: University of St Andrews
Department Name: Physics and Astronomy

Abstract

Astronomy is a curious science. We have no traditional laboratories at our disposal, we cannot poke and prod our scientific subjects, nor can we setup carefully thought out experiments that will best test our scientific hypotheses. Our laboratory is the Universe - from nearby stars and planets to astronomically distant galaxies; our instruments are telescopes, gathering light of all wavelengths, pinpointing the position of shining stars, gas and galaxies. Our experiments are cleverly selected observations of these objects, translating their light into information about their composition, studying them at what we believe are different stages of their evolution, and observing their effect on neighbouring objects. We create our own experiments from the immensely chaotic master laboratory that is the Universe, and we take on the challenge that is to explain how it came to be, what it is made of, how it will end, and what fundamental laws tick the whole thing into motion.

We are good at this, consider some of what we have learned: that the Universe is around 13.7 billion years old and that it has since been expanding; that its expansion is seemingly accelerating; that the Universe is full of a delightful mix of galaxies of all sizes, shapes and colours; that galaxies are filled with stars, planets, gas and dust; and that the Universe seems filled with a mysterious unseen amount of matter that responds only one to the four fundamental forces of the Universe: gravity. As a scientist, however, my focus is firmly on things we do not yet know. Why is the expansion of the Universe accelerating (a phenomenon we call Dark Energy)? Is it being driven by a force previously unknown, or is the Universe's acceleration an illusion that stems from a potential lack of understanding of how gravity works? How come most of the matter of the Universe is unseen? How does this Dark Matter relate to the visible tip of the Universe's matter content, and how does it affect its evolution? And why such a variety of galaxies? Why some blue, red or green, and how do they relate to the unseen matter distribution of the Universe?

My personal contribution towards the monumental task that is answering these fundamental questions is to establish a robust link between the components of the Universe that are visible and those that are not. As an Ernest Rutherford Fellow I will begin by understanding how we can confidently interpret the light coming from galaxies in a way that tells us about their own growth and evolution, and then how to link it to the evolution of the dominating Dark Matter component of the Universe. I will do this by taking both models of stellar light and models of how structure grows in the Universe under the force of gravity and, for the first time, contrasting such models with observations and computer simulations in a self-consistent way. The result will be an increased knowledge of how certain types of galaxies relate to the Dark Matter, and in turn this knowledge will allow me to select the optimal set of observations to learn how structure formed in the Universe. This is a tough task, but I have shown in a preliminary analysis that the knowledge we gain provides a big step in understanding the behaviour of Dark Energy across cosmic times, and enhances our knowledge about gravity.

In other words, my research programme is an ambitious optimisation exercise. One that turns the limited observations we can make of the Universe into as powerful tool to investigate its fundamental laws as possible, whilst simultaneously learning about the beautiful part of the Universe that we are luck enough to observe - galaxies.

Publications

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Alam Shadab (2015) The Eleventh and Twelfth Data Releases of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey: Final Data from SDSS-III in The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series

 
Description This grant improved our understanding of the nature of the main constituents of the Universe by using large, three-dimensional maps of the Universe. The funded research directly contributed to our best measurement of the expansion rate of the Universe ever made - a measurement made using the detailed positions of 1.2 million galaxies, gathered over a massive observing campaign lasting 5 years. Our measurement solidified Einstein's theory of General Relativity as a theory that universally explains gravitational interactions, whilst simultaneously confirming with unprecedented accuracy that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating, driven by a mysterious component dubbed Dark Energy. Research funded by this grant also looked on to the future, preparing for the next generation of ambitious cosmological surveys by developing new techniques to analyse large amounts of data that characterise the light of galaxies. Furthermore, research funded by this grant opened new areas of interest with potential implications for our understanding of how galaxies evolve, by discovering a relationship between the evolution of galaxies, and the large scale cosmic web in which they reside. Finally, during this grant an education programme was started, whereby data and instrumentation used in the funded research were used to develop classroom resources. The goal of the educational programme is to develop a training scheme for Physics teachers in Scotland, supporting and empowering teachers to use state-of-the-art data and research in the classroom, whilst simultaneously contextualising Physics learning for pupils.
Exploitation Route Measurements of the expansion rate of the Universe have been used extensively already by the astronomical community in order to constrain theoretical models of Dark Energy. New techniques developed are already being used in the preparation for the next generation of galaxy surveys. Educational resources are not yet completed, but we hope they are used by teachers and other educators across Scotland and the rest of the UK.
Sectors Education,Other

URL http://www.sdss.org/press-releases/astronomers-map-a-record-breaking-1-2-million-galaxies-to-study-the-properties-of-dark-energy/
 
Description Data from the surveys used and conducted during this award are at the heart of a new teacher training programme being developed in Scotland. The goal is to use state of the art data, as well as physical plates used at the telescope that collected the data, to design classroom resources that support and empower teachers, whilst at the same time contextualising Physics learning for pupils. This educational project was awarded £10K by the University of St Andrews Knowledge Exchange & Impact fund, and is currently ongoing.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Education
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

 
Description Carnegie Vacation Scholarships
Amount £2,500 (GBP)
Organisation Carnegie Trust 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2018 
End 08/2018
 
Description L'Óreal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship
Amount £15,000 (GBP)
Organisation L'Oreal (Paris) 
Sector Private
Country France
Start 09/2015 
End 09/2017
 
Description RSE Undergraduate Vacation Research Scholarships in Astronomy
Amount £1,200 (GBP)
Organisation Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2015 
End 08/2015
 
Description RSE Undergraduate Vacation Research Scholarships in Astronomy
Amount £1,200 (GBP)
Organisation Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2015 
End 08/2015
 
Description SDSS 
Organisation Sloan Digital Sky Survey
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Chair of the galaxy clustering working group for BOSS (part of SDSS-III). Architect status for BOSS (part of SDSS-III) - over one year FTE contribution towards infrastructure work. Chair of the galaxy science working group for eBOSS (part of SDSS-IV) External participant for SDSS-III (one year FTE contribution towards infrastructure work). Temporary external participant status for SDSS-IV (one year FTE contribution towards infrastructure work expected for the duration of the collaboration). Responsible for creation and maintenance of the large-scale structure catalogues for eBOSS. Co-chair of the Education and Public Outreach committee for SDSS-IV.
Collaborator Contribution Design, implementation and exploitation of the all remaining aspects of the survey.
Impact Publications as listed in the relevant section.
Start Year 2014
 
Description BGTB 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Took newly developed demonstration on the expansion of the Universe and large-scale structure to the Bang Goes the Borders Science festival, Scotland. Approximately 1000 people attended the event, and around 200 people engaged with this new demonstration. This not only resulted in excellent engagement with a number of families, but also allowed us to further develop the activity based on feedback received.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.shintonconsulting.com/bgtb/
 
Description BOSS results press release 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Press release for BOSS final results. The press release resulted in numerous (10+) interviews for local radio stations and international magazines or other online media outlets. The press released was reported on by over 100 different news outlets worldwide.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.sdss.org/press-releases/astronomers-map-a-record-breaking-1-2-million-galaxies-to-study-t...
 
Description Blazing the Trail, Women in Science Festival, Dundee 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Network event for the Women in Science Festival 2017, Dundee. I was one of 4 invited speakers.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.evensi.uk/blazing-the-trail-networking-event-university-of-dundee/200160497
 
Description British Astronomical Association Summer Meeting 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact I was invited to speak at the annual summer meeting of the British Astronomical Association.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Cafe Sci Newcastle 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Talk at Newcastle Cafe Sci, and associated podcast.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Focus meeting for Plates for Education programme 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Focus group meeting with Secondary School Physics teachers, for the developement of the Plates for Education teacher-training programme.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description IYL 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Several International Year of Light events, as part of the Shine project (http://shine.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk), led by a colleague with significant input from me. My personal contributions to Shine included:
* I designed a new demonstration to illustrate part of my research, and then supervised two high-school interns (funded by the Nuffield Foundation) who developed it and brought it to live.
* I participated in the development of the all the other science demonstrations, and created much of the supporting material.
* I personally attended 4 public events and engaged with over 500 people in total.

The impact of Shine was very broad. As it combined science with art and music, the project was able to reach an incredibly diverse audience, who would traditionally not engage with science. Feedback (from online and in-person questionnaires) was excellent, with many audience members reporting an increased awareness of scientific (mostly astronomy-related) topics.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://shine.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk
 
Description LabNews interview 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Interview followed article for LabNews, after being awarded the 2015 L'Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship. Whereas I can't gauge the impact of the pieces I wrote, after my interview LabNews then published an article I wrote on my research and we have since kept in touch.

http://www.labnews.co.uk/features/dark-energy-cosmic-frontier-07-01-2016/
http://www.labnews.co.uk/interviews/big-ask/bright-stars-dark-energy-23-11-2015/
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Native Scientist 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Native Scientist is an initiative that allows Portuguese scientists to engage with the Portuguese community (focusing on children aged 8-16) in the UK, in Portuguese, about their own research. Sessions are organised in Portuguese Schools, or Portuguese clubs, or wherever else the community can be reached. Each session only reaches a small number of children, but the engagement has shown to be impactful: teachers/organisers repeatedly report an increased interest in science and in the Portuguese language (all of the children are bilingual, and for most English is the dominant language).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013,2014,2015
URL http://www.nativescientist.com
 
Description Organisation of Sharing One Sky II meeting 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Co-organised and participated on the two-day Sharing One Sky II meeting, in Santiago, Chile (July 2017). In collaboration with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey IV (SDSS-I) Chilean Participation Group, the SDSS EPO group (which I co-direct) hosted a second Sharing One Sky meeting in the two days preceding the SDSS-IV collaboration meeting in Santiago, Chile. 30 participants from six countries came together to discuss E/PO efforts in Latin America and beyond, with a strong focus on SDSS data. SDSS educational activities Voyages, SciServer and Plates for Education were demonstrated at the meeting, and 8 retired SDSS plates were shipped to Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile for distribution. Six of these plates have since been awarded to Chilean educators, all of whom attended the Sharing One Sky II meeting. We tracked the impact of our activities at the meeting via pre- and post-workshops surveys. The responses indicate a positive impact and an increase of awareness of SDSS-based E/PO activities.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.sochias.cl/eventos/internacionales/357-sharing-one-sky-ii
 
Description Plates for Education Hack day 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Full-day event, bringing together Secondary school teachers, pupils, professional science communicators and academic researchers to find innovative ways to use research astronomy data in the classroom. The discussions and seed activities of the day are currently being turned into classroom resources and teacher training materials.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description SDSS E/PO at AAS 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact The SDSS-IV E/PO group (which I co-direct) organised a 1.5 hour workshop entitled "Bringing SDSS Data to the Classroom". The session introduced SDSS Voyages, Plates for Education and SciServer activities to the 35 participants, with an emphasis on the latter. A survey of our attendees revealed a particular appetite for University-level materials, with ~50% expressing interest in acquiring python-based SDSS activities for their college classrooms and labs. The SDSS booth also participated in an outreach event for local pupils, who rotated through the exhibition hall. Approximately 100 students (ages 10 - 16) interacted with an SDSS plate and data via MaNGA colouring-in charts and SDSS playing cards.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description STEM Academy 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Participation in STEM Academy, run by the University of the West of Scotland. The STEM Academy is a new type of event, that aims to co-create educational resources by bringing together teachers, pupils and researchers. The 2018 edition was a success, with teachers and pupils reporting feeling inspired and more confident to use research in the classroom. We have already committed to the 2019 editions.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.uws.ac.uk/events/2018/july/uws-summer-stem-academy/
 
Description School visit (Madras, St Andrews) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Hands-on workshop to 80 S3 Physics students, using astronomical data.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description School visit (St Paul's, Dundee) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact School visit, to 30 students doing Highers and Advanced Highers in Computing and/or Chemistry. 2hr hands-on session using astronomical data.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Women in Science, DSC 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I participated in the Women in Science Festival, organised yearly by the Dundee Science Centre. In 2015 myself and a colleague took two demonstrations that showcased our research to the Dundee Science Centre, where we engaged with around 100 people (almost exclusively families). There was clear interest from the audience on our demonstrations, which often sparked lengthy and in-depth conversations with the parents.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Workshop on new educational programme 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Workshop with professional science communicators, academics and education lecturers to kick off the developement of a new education programme in Scotland, aimed at Physics teachers in secondary schools.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018